The Guardian published on its website an extract from a book by Andrew Hussey The French Intifada: how the Arab banlieues are fighting the French state, on February 23rd. This extract made quite the buzz on my Francophone Twitter timeline with many comments being quite approving.
I fail to understand this positive perception. While I had never heard of Andrew Hussey before, as per his Wikipedia page, he is a cultural historian and biographer who works at the University of London Institute in Paris, his historical works on Paris and French culture sound interesting. Yet, this long article (or extract) fails to convince or to provide much of an insight.
Hussey starts out with a description of the riots in the Gare du Nord back in 2007, when a ticket control resulted in a young man’s broken hand and the subsequent – and rapid – mobilization of hundreds of banlieusards wreaking havoc in the station, the most important regional train hub linking Paris to its poorer Northern suburbs. He links this violence with 2005, “when two young men were electrocuted while trying to escape police”, which “was followed by almost a week of rioting every night, during which thousands of cars were burned.” So far, so good, and clearly the frequency of these riots – one could mention Lyon in 2010 as well – shows that something is rotten in the state of France’s societal fabric.
Yet, Hussey then goes off the rails when he claims denial of the fact on the part of those who blamed a “fracture sociale” for these riots. Instead – citing Gilles Kepel – he argues that “what happens here is because of our relationship with the Arab world, and our history there.” He then goes on to recite in detail the Tunisian revolution as an expression of the same sentiment that caused French youths of Arabic origin to whistle the French national anthem before the France-Tunisia friendly match in Paris in 2008.
This is absurd on multiple levels of course. Yet, apart from a few sloppy errors such as implying that the military had originally partaken in the repression of demonstrations in Tunisia and the ministerial portfolio of Michèle Alliot-Marie his description of events is sound and full of vivid detail. It is his very facts that contradict his assessment though. If it was “a young Congolese man” whose arrest caused the riots at the Gare du Nord, if these rioters were made up of “mainly black[s]” [and Arabs], then how does that square with Islam and/or a coherent Arabic society – a sort of ummah (أمة) if you want – lying at the root of this unrest?
The application of one identity – Arabic or Islam – to a whole group of people only some of which are even of Arabic origin or Muslims is not only nonsensical per se, it also pretends to explain the motives of rioters in France with a dangerous simple-mindedness. Yet, it is highly dubious to argue that the banlieusards’ ‘us’ against ‘them’ logic is based on an underlying religious commitment or an adherence to pan-Arabism. If the latter had been the case wouldn’t French Arabs have demonstrated – rioted if you may – following Alliot-Marie’s proposal to supply Ben Ali with French security expertise against the demonstrations in Tunisia? Wouldn’t rioters in that case have targeted shops run by français-de-souche or in general non-Muslim business owners just like African-Americans in Los Angeles had done with Korean-American-run shops? Yet, neither of this took place.
If Hussey is as familiar with Tunisia as he purports to be, then he will be aware of the strong economic roots – youth unemployment, corruption, and inequality especially – of the Tunisian revolution. Religiously motivated demonstrators, let alone those demonstrating out of a pan-Arabic sentiment, were at best part of a barely visible minority there also. These social grudges are of a national nature though, and while some of the same underlie societal problems in France – youth unemployment mainly – the scale of both their pertinence and outcome is incomparable.
There are obviously some parallels between riots in France and Tunisia, the exploitation of social media and mobile phones, which lead to a potentially much quicker mobilization of popular or mob reinforcements for example. Or, arguably, in general the 21st century’s high street-level mobilization as could also be seen recently in Turkey, Egypt, Ukraine, et al. Yet, none of these parallels are based on French colonial history, Islam, or some kind of an inherent Arab cultural link that surpasses generations, country borders, and the Mediterranean to extend from rural Tunisians to suburban French city-dwellers.
Hussey himself admits as much when he talks about how “it is almost impossible for immigrants to France from its former colonies to feel authentically “at home” there.” Yet, if this is – one of – the reasons for conflict, it is not something that is peculiar to either Muslims or Arabs, nor can the same argument feasibly be made for the revolutions in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world. By linking the Tunisian revolution and French riots to an ill-defined Arabic/Islamic society, The shame is that Hussey undercuts his own – or Kepel’s – intriguing argument of French colonial history lying at the core of the country’s recurring violent eruptions by this orientalist scapegoating.